I understand that the ITV soap opera, Coronation Street, is planning to feature a suicide tonight. One of the characters has pancreatic cancer and is preparing to take a cocktail of lethal drugs. I can see there is a kind of gritty realism about this, and it obviously makes for powerful drama; but is it also yet another way, this time through the arts, of softening up the public by slow degrees for the ultimate personal freedom: the right to die?
I wrote a blog on Friday on this subject, referring to a real-life tragedy: the suicide of a Welsh academic, Frances Medley, who had multiple sclerosis. Such deaths are a tragedy, not the celebration of choice as advocates of euthanasia would like us to see it. Dr Peter Saunders has written a punchy article about this on his Christian Medical Comment blog. As a doctor he is sympathetic to the fears of dying patients but he is also clear that “all media portrayal of suicide or assisted suicide has to be done with the utmost care and sensitivity so as not inadvertently to steer vulnerable people towards suicide.” It remains to be seen whether ITV has exercised this sensitivity.
Dr Saunders explodes the five myths that are widely believed about death and dying:
That people dying of cancer (it could be any other fatal illness) want to die. He points out that the huge majority don’t: they want good care and support.
That the level of pain can become intolerable. With skilled medical and palliative care, he argues, it can be controlled. “That is why the pro-euthanasia lobby have essentially stopped using pain as an argument for changing the law.” I must point this out to my Quaker friend who believes in “assisted death for end of life situations, especially when the patient is experiencing severe and uncontrollable pain.”
That effective pain relief and powerful drugs causes confusion. He points out that cancer patients “can tolerate much larger doses of pain medication than you or I and remain mentally alert.”
That the lives of some sick and disabled people “are not worth living.” As Dr Saunders emphasises, this simply “panders to ignorant prejudice.” It is why disability rights activists strongly oppose any change in the law as they are acutely aware it will put them in danger from well-meaning professionals with deadly intent. Alison Davis, who died recently and whose obituary has been in the Herald, was a heroic champion of the right to life of disabled people, both before birth and at the end of life. Born with spina bifida and enduring much pain in her own life, she nevertheless came to see that life has a value that cannot be measured by the criterion of health alone.
Finally, that the suicidal thoughts of sick and disabled people should be treated differently from similar thoughts in others who are not in their position. As Dr Saunders explains: “People who are suicidal need love, support, care and professional help…It is utterly illogical to offer a glass of barbiturate to someone who is terminally ill while offering protection and care to a person equally suicidal with a mental illness.”
I had a friend who died of pancreatic cancer last year. Her diagnosis came late in the day and she died less than three months later. She was nursed at home with support from Macmillan nurses until her last few days when she went to our local hospice. It helped that she had strong religious faith; but even if she hadn’t, the human support she received from her family, from friends and from professionals ensured that she lived and died with proper dignity; she was lucid almost to the end and her death came naturally and painlessly.
Perhaps TV soap operas need to show this kind of dying? Such dramas orchestrate a persuasive and subliminal form of propaganda, as they well know. But don’t viewers have a right to know there is an alternative to that horrible phrase “a lethal cocktail of drugs?”